American women enjoy excellent healthcare, and in the last two decades have benefited from advances in nutrition, drugs, and other medical treatments that have combated diseases, improved quality of life, and extended longevity by an average of five years. American women could be enjoying even better healthcare, though, if the federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA) weren’t regularly hijacked by activist groups that misrepresent health risks, unnecessarily frighten the public, and pressure the agency to slow down, and occasionally stop, medical advances.

The most familiar such example has been the exaggerated scare over silicone breast implants: Despite several independent medical studies failing to find causality between silicone breast implants and auto-immune disease, activist groups and trial lawyers succeeded in pressuring the FDA to impose a moratorium on the implants in 1992.

Plenty of more recent examples exist. Consider the women’s health scares that the FDA has had to react to in the last two years: The notion that the government conspires to allow fatally high mercury levels in fish; that stomach-discomfort and weight-reduction drugs are deadly; that newly approved drugs are deadly; and that nail polish is harmful to women’s health. These scares have led to FDA reconsiderations of policy-channeling taxpayer resources toward the scare and away from other productive uses-and have contributed to an overall slowing of the regulatory process.

Yet the FDA response to the scares has much more to do with politics than science: Each scare generates mainstream-media coverage, often on the front page of newspapers. Each scare proves to have an avowedly anti-corporate group such as Public Citizen or the Environmental Working Group as its instigator. And each scare is based on a mis-assessment of risk that plays to women’s fears rather than to women’s sense of reason. Put another way, the FDA response is the last in a chain of “scare dominoes” that begins with an activist group’s claim and gathers political steam as it moves through the insufficiently analytical media.

The cost to us of the FDA focusing on these “scare dominoes” is high. Already, drug approvals have slowed. Regulators are distracted from current projects to respond to activists’ agendas. The suggestible public becomes confused and suspicious, as regulators appear at times overly lax and at other times overly skittish about new drugs. The FDA’s message is inconsistent.

The way to counteract “scare dominoes” is for the FDA to maintain tough, scientific standards on a threshold level of public risk to which it will respond with regulatory changes. This is, of course, the principle on which the FDA already operates, but the agency clearly deviates from it when the political heat is turned on.

The FDA must also reach out more effectively to the public and counter the misrepresentations of risk by putting them in context. Ideally, every single media story about a health risk should feature an FDA comment that puts the risk-level in context.

Only with aggressive outreach and risk assessment standards will the agency become able to counter scares with sense.

Melana Zyla Vickers is a Senior Fellow at the Independent Women’s Forum. This is excerpted from an IWF Special Report, Scare Tactics in Medicine: How Activist Groups Hijack the FDA.